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If you are one of the many people who benefit from taking a natural health supplement, chances are you have experienced first-hand how potent plant-based medicines can be. But did you know there is an ancient, medicinal superfood known as “the conqueror of weakness,” which comes from plants that were alive millions of years ago?
It’s likely to draw puzzled looks if you mention it in most circles, but shilajit has been a staple of the Ayurvedic medicine cabinet for millennia. Primarily found in the Himalayan region bordering India, China, Tibet and parts of Central Asia, shilajit is a tar-like resin that develops over time from the slow decomposition of plant matter under pressure. Known to contain 85 different minerals and trace elements that are increasingly rare in a modern, denatured diet, this ancient medicine is gaining in popularity as a natural multivitamin and mineral supplement. Thanks to Amazon.com and a trend of strong sales and reviews, shilajit is poised to cross-over into mainstream use by lifehackers and those in pursuit of optimal health.
Shilajit is harvested from a vast, mountainous region spanning several countries and many different cultures, hence, shilajit goes by many names. Called mumiyo in the Altai and Caucasus mountains of the former Soviet Union, salajeet in the Persian-influenced regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan, mineral pitch by the English, and even referred to as “mountain sweat”, this sticky mineral resin is deposited organic material, exuding through the cracks of time.
Modern analysis of shilajit reveals the humus of ancient rainforests, along with modern vegetation washed into mountain cracks by wind and snow-melt. Originally formed during the Triassic period when land masses were colliding, extinct marine mollusks and ancient vegetation were folded under the shifting tectonic plates.1 The intense pressure, combined with time, have essentially composted the matter into a rich mass of bioactive minerals. Real-time environmental factors cause shilajit to seep out of cracks in the mountains as it becomes warmed by the sun. These high-altitude mountain faces are where authentic shilajit is still harvested today.
The ubiquitous presence of this substance throughout pharmacological history as a health and longevity enhancer, is a testament to its value. But what is it about decaying vegetable matter that has made shilajit the “conqueror of mountains and destroyer of weakness” for thousands of years?
Destroyer of Weakness
References to shilajit as a miracle rejuvenator date back at least 2000 years to the Charaka Samhita, a Sanskrit text on Ayurveda. Aristotle is said to have made references to the therapeutic benefits of shilajit (or mumia) mixed with honey, and Alexander the Great is believed to have given shilajit to his battlefield generals to stave off exhaustion.2 One origin story describes how shilajit came into use: villagers marveled at the speed, agility, and stamina of the monkeys that constantly raced up and down the sheer rock cliffs, seemingly impervious to the effects of altitude or exhaustion. The villagers noticed that the monkeys seemed to be in pursuit of the viscous black ooze seeping out of the highest peaks, so humans began to consume it in hopes it would impart similar benefits. A local saying developed that individuals who consume shilajit will become “as strong as a rock.”3
The exact composition of shilajit varies based on geographic factors such as mineral composition of the rock, varieties of plants, level of altitude, etc. Weather attributes such as temperature and humidity, as well as when and how it is harvested, can impact nutritive value. The basic composition is a complex mixture of organic humic substances composed of plant and microbial metabolites, including phytochemicals, fulvic acid, and naturally-occurring colloidal minerals. Due to its low molecular weight and chelating action, fulvic acid acts as a carrier for minerals, increasing bioavailability by helping minerals penetrate cells.
Shilajit helps the body absorb and assimilate other nutrients while increasing overall resistance to oxidative stress.4 A chromatography analysis conducted by scientists at Banaras Hindu University found shilajit also contains benzocoumarins, plant compounds that have been isolated for their pharmacological benefits, including anti-allergy effects.5
Historic Uses of Shilajit
The power of ancestral medicine has recently been validated by science, demonstrating that traditional remedies are often more powerful than the latest drugs. According to Ayurvedic texts, there is no disease for which shilajit is not a cure. Historically, it was believed to resolve skin problems, and slow the effects of aging. Applied topically to wounds, it was thought to speed healing, prevent infection, and help tissues repair. Shilajit was said to heal broken bones, as well as strengthen the body, increase stamina, and boost immunity. Sherpas consumed it (and arguably still do) to enhance their ability to withstand high-altitude, mountain treks. It is even rumored that Olympic athletes from the USSR used it when training to enhance performance and speed recovery.
Modern producers of shilajit claim an array of properties, such as:
- Anti-aging, including cell and tissue regeneration
- Metabolic enhancer, providing boosts of energy
- Blood sugar regulation, helping normalize insulin-resistant cells
- Aphrodisiac, increasing libido and blood flow to the genitals
- Immune system booster and adaptogen
- Cognitive aid, helping heal and protect the brain
But what does medical science have to say about this mysterious, almost mythical black goo?
Modern Study of an Ancient Medicine
Modern medical trials have examined traditional Ayurvedic claims of shilajit’s effectiveness as a remedy for fatigue and weakness. Shilajit is considered an adaptogen, meaning, it works to enhance the body’s overall vigor, as well as resistance to sickness and disease. But until the 1990s, these claims were mostly anecdotal; the claims of ancestral medicine, not something that had been verified by modern science.
An August 2000 study published in the Journal of Clinical Nutrition on “Selected herbals and human exercise performance,” found root extracts, including shilajit, improved exercise performance in the following areas:
- Increased muscular strength
- Maximized oxygen uptake
- Enhanced work capacity
- Fuel homeostasis
- Improved serum lactate
- Reduced heart rate
- Improved visual and auditory reaction/ psychomotor skills6
In Russia, shilajit is called “mumiyo,” and it has long-held esteem in the herbal medicine cabinet. Scientists there may have identified shilajit’s immune system connection when they observed shilajit’s ability to increase Interleukin (IL-1) in the bloodstream. IL-1 is an important protein that stimulates production of T-cells, critical to a healthy-functioning immune system.7 A 2010 medical abstract substantiates shilajit’s usefulness to sherpas due to its immune-system stimulating effects, particularly at high altitude.8
A 2012 study exploring the use of shilajit as a treatment for chronic fatigue showed promising results in animal studies. Rats that were given shilajit needed less downtime after forced exertion, had measurably less anxiety, and saw a reversal in chronic fatigue syndrome-induced mitochondrial oxidative stress.9 Shilajit sourced from the Andes mountains has been found to have an ORAC index, short for “oxygen radical absorbance capacity,” greater than the antioxidant-rich superfood, blueberries.
Shilajit has only recently come under broader scientific review. One of the more studied applications for its use is the arena of brain health. A 1992 study explored shilajit’s effects on memory and anxiety in rats. Results indicated shilajit had a significant impact on “nootropic and anxiolytic activity,” meaning it was found to have both cognitive-enhancing and anti-anxiety effects. Concentrations of stress chemicals that create feelings of anxiety went down, while dopamine levels, the feel-good chemical, increased.10
A 2011 study published in the International Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease reported that shilajit was a “potent and very safe dietary supplement” that restores energetic balance and may prevent several diseases. Researchers examined its potential use to treat cognitive disorders associated with aging, specifically how fulvic acid, a main active component of shilajit, may be of benefit in Alzheimer's therapy.11 Fulvic acid is a known antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and memory enhancer, that researchers determined had “strong potential” as a therapeutic agent in the fight against Alzheimer’s disease using natural products.12
One of the folkloric stories about shilajit involves two men in the forest, using bow and arrows to hunt game. A hunter released an arrow into a gazelle, who ran injured into a cave. Later, the hunters saw the gazelle grazing near the cave, arrow still protruding from its side, however with no other discernable injuries. Upon closer examination, the hunters saw black goo covering its wounds, that the animal had applied by rubbing against the interior walls of the cave. The magical tar had quickly sealed the animal’s wounds and hastened healing of its wounds.
Thanks to such stories, it is easy to see why shilajit has gained a reputation as a powerful healing agent. Sodium humate, one of the active ingredients in shilajit, has been used to treat skin wounds in many medical traditions, and a 2016 study put this reputation to the test. Researchers noted that the group of rats treated with sodium humate experienced accelerated wound contraction and increased hydroxyproline content, which produced faster healing.13
Another powerful wound healing effect is shilajit’s pronounced antimicrobial properties. A Jinnah University study in Karachi tested shilajit from Pakistan and found that it inhibited various pathologic microbe strains such as staphylococcus, streptococcus, salmonella, e.coli, and candida albicans.14
Traditionally, shilajit was used to address multiple inflammatory conditions. A 1990 study sought to validate folklore about shilajit’s healing powers for treating ulcers and inflammatory conditions such as arthritis. “Shilajit was found to have significant anti-inflammatory effect…” as well as creating a condition of increased protective mucous in the stomach, thus inhibiting the formation of ulcers.15
Pain lies at the heart of most inflammatory conditions, and a 2015 study focused on shilajit’s anti-inflammatory properties to explore a potential association to reduced sensitivity to pain. Among two groups, the test group received shilajit, and the control group received distilled water. Results showed “significant analgesic effect” and at much lower relative doses when compared with morphine and diclofenac, a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID).16 This low-dose, pain-inhibiting effect has led researchers to explore shilajit in the treatment of alcohol and opiate addiction, though these studies are still in the early stages.
Shilajit has a reputation for being the all-natural Viagra, due to its potent ability to restore hormones to healthy levels. Shilajit is said to boost a low sex drive, and reverse loss of hair and muscle mass, all signs of decreasing testosterone levels. A study conducted on infertile men showed that shilajit not only increased testosterone levels, it also increased sperm count and motility, the all-important ability of sperm to get to the egg.17
A study conducted on healthy volunteers at a dose of 250 mg, twice daily for 90 days, revealed that shilajit significantly increased total testosterone, free testosterone and other sex hormones such as DHEAS, compared with placebo. The study concluded that “purified Shilajit increases the total and free testosterone levels in healthy volunteers.”18
The focus on testosterone shouldn’t cause concern for women interested in supplementing with shilajit. Adaptogens act as balancing agents in the body, restoring healthy hormone levels irrespective of specific hormone types. Historically, shilajit was recommended for women to enhance the quality of blood, easing menstruation and enhancing fertility. It has the same libido-enhancing effects for women as it does for men, and appears to improve the overall condition of sex hormones. A study on female rats that were fed none (control) or varying doses of shilajit daily for 6 weeks, concluded that shilajit was associated with more rats in estrus. Shilajit was also found to have stimulating properties on oocytes (cells that may become eggs) and ovulation frequency.19
The primary bioactive components of shilajit have been identified as the humic compounds, humic acid (HA) and fulvic acid (FA). According to an article published in the International Journal of Toxicological and Pharmacological Research, shilajit was posited by the authors to be a useful cancer therapy and preventative, due to known properties of HA and FA, such as:
- heavy metal chelating
Authors put forth shilajit’s usefulness as a palliative aid to chemotherapy patients. Evidence cited in the article includes the results of using shilajit as a palliative treatment for HIV patients on antiretrovirals, resulting in increased appetite, decreased nausea, improvements in blood iron levels, better mood, and other benefits. Shilajit’s immuno-enhancing properties are also cited as strong rationale for including shilajit in the standard of care for cancer treatment and prevention.20
Potential Side Effects of Shilajit
The anecdotal accounts of the many health-enhancing benefits of shilajit are difficult to discount, and science is beginning to amass a bank of scientific data that supports these claims. As with any supplement, discretion should be exercised when taking anything new. To that end, be advised of potential side effects and quality concerns that could impact you if you decide to try shilajit.
Allergic reactions. This may sound obvious, but it bears repeating: if you’ve never tried it before, you can’t be sure how you will react. Shilajit purity should be of the highest concern. Fake products may be cut with any number of herbs and vitamin or mineral supplements. Potential allergic reactions to shilajit or any of these additives could include flushing, strained breathing, nausea, dizziness, and joint pain. When sourcing shilajit, request a certificate of authenticity, or better yet, a chemical composition analysis on your batch so you know exactly what you’re consuming. Allow your body to be the ultimate judge; if it doesn’t feel right, stop taking it.
Heavy metal poisoning. In September 2016, a story broke across natural news channels about high levels of lead and arsenic found in a specific brand of shilajit.21 The shilajit supplement was independently tested and found to have over 180 times the EPA allowable standard for lead in drinking water (ppb). This same sample contained over 600 ppb of arsenic. High concentrations of heavy metals are clearly cause for concern. For this reason, source shilajit from a supplier that provides certified lab results, and has a history of being in business with strong customer and product reviews.
6. Bucci LR. Selected herbals and human exercise performance. Am J Clin Nutr. 2000 Aug; 72(2 Suppl):624S-36S
19. Park JS, Kim GY, Han K. The spermatogenic and ovogenic effects of chronically administered Shilajit to rats. J Ethnopharmacol. (2006)